Friday, November 22, 2013

The Waiting Game

I have been in Algiers for eight weeks but haven't started teaching yet. It's called the waiting game. I am waiting for approval from the government that requested me. Hopefully I will have official approval in a few days so I can get back to work. 

In the mean time, I have been making new friends and exploring the magnificent museums of Algiers. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cross-Cultural Confusion

I was watching "South Central" on TV today. One of the gang leaders was wearing a big Ghanaian necklace. I was thinking, "I wonder what Ghanaians are thinking" as they watch the screen. 

It reminded me of last year when I showed the movie "Interrupters" to my students in Nouakchott. There was footage of a gang leader from the 1970's who was wearing a traditional Fulani hat. The hat is a symbol of Fulani identity and culture, particularly of the life in the village as cattle-herders, worn as protection from the sun and dust in the hot, arid climate of the fuuta. My Fulani students in the room stared at the screen, and one of them said loudly, "Hey, where did he get our hat?" It was so funny to see their reaction and I start laughing whenever I think of their expressions of complete bewilderment. 

I wonder if it is equally perplexing for Americans to see aspects of their culture appropriated in a completely different context. For example, does Chris Brown know that his popular hairstyle can be seen in villages everywhere around the world?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pariah Hand

In many countries of the world, the left hand is pariah hand. It cannot do anything or touch anything. Since I am left handed, this is a bit inconvenient. I remember one time in Nouakchott I was stunned when a taxi driver angrily refused to take the money I handed him. Looking at the money in my hand, I confirmed it was the correct amount. Thinking he was trying to get more, I started to argue about the fare. He finally told me that it was extremely rude to hand someone money with my left hand. I was blown away. How many times had I offered my left hand to people and they were insulted but too polite to tell me? I felt terrible. Why had no one told me this before? 

I learned to eat with my right hand, my pariah hand safely out of sight under the table. I offer my right hand to shake, my pariah hand at my hips. I eat bread slowly, ripping off bits with my left hand (as quickly as possible) and eating piece by piece with my right hand. I am mindful to hold the wallet in my pariah hand, while taking out cash and handing it to the vendor in my right hand. When handing out school papers, I hold the stack in my left hand while delivering the papers with my right. The list goes on and on. I play the rules and my pariah hand stays out of touch. 

Since we live in right-handed world, I grew up learning to use right handed scissors, pour from the pan with my right hand, and so many other tasks. Yet no matter how much I try, I will never be able to write or hold a fork with my right hand. I figure that the fork provides enough of a buffer between my mouth and the food so it's not too terrible of a crime to use pariah hand, especially given the alternative (spilling all of the food on the floor). 

Avoiding using pariah hand has become such a habit I don't even notice anymore- until I go home to the U.S. I feel a bit paralyzed avoiding my left hand, like it is somehow injured or non-functioning. I watch others with awe as they effortlessly switch tasks between both hands. Although I love both of my hands equally, I still feel a voice in my head saying "pariah hand" whenever I go to use my left hand to pay, etc. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Algerian Dream

I spent eleven days at a book fair in Algiers. The fair is "the largest cultural event" in Algeria, with a record 1.5 million people in attendance this year. As I was talking to people, I realized that it didn't matter what I said because nearly everyone who came to the table just wanted to hear me speak English and have the chance to engage in a dialogue with a native speaker. Many of the people I met told me they have an "American Dream" and I was always quick to remind them that I am here and living the "Algerian Dream."  

The highlight of the fair was talking to a diverse audience about all kinds of issues. I was so happy to meet the board of a super energetic English club in Ghardaia (a city in the south of Algeria), as well as a wide assortment of writers, artists, teachers, intellectuals, and academics. I was also invited to do an interview for a children's television show, which I have yet to see. 

The fair provided a real introduction to Algerian generosity. Everyday my newly found friends brought me gifts - among the highlights were a scarf from the scouts of Ghardaia, hand-drawn fashion pictures of fashion and graffiti, an English-Arabic dictionary, a novel about youth leadership, Peruvian fiction, English-Arabic card game, a paper swan, and beautiful hand painted ceramic boxes. I was so touched that strangers returned many times to become my friends within just a few days. Of course the gift of friendship is the most memorable and significant! 

In the time since the fair I have run into many of the people I met there. In a city of 5 million people it seems surprising but every time I go downtown I run into people who say, "Delia" or "I want to learn English." I hope that my friendship with many of the fair-friends continue and I will definitely do my part to keep in touch. 


I feel a great sense of freedom traveling alone- exploring a new city on my own with curiosity as my only guide. 

This time I am in Algiers, Algeria. I am filled with a great sense of wonder climbing up the winding narrow streets lined with white buildings. How lucky I am! 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


As you may have noticed, I took a break from writing. I didn't really decide deliberately but I just couldn't ever find the right words. Last year was really difficult for me, both personally and professionally. One of my best friends, Kay Mosely, passed away and I spent ten months sorting out her affairs in Nouakchott and trying to say goodbye.

I saw her driving every where (any woman with grey hair) and I always felt her presence, giving me advice and guidance. "What would Kay do?" I don't believe in life after death or ghosts but I do believe that the people we love live on in our hearts and the lessons they taught us give us strength every day. 

When I was faced with the task of going through Kay's things, I realized how much I truly admired her. I found so many of my favorite books in her collection and I discovered new favorites as I read the ones I hadn't before. I regret not spending more time with Kay while I had the chance because I realize in her absence how much we shared. 

I remember visiting her apartment in D.C. a month before her passing and seeing her fantastic collection of treasures from her travels. Most of her apartment was decorated by her mother, who also had impeccable taste, and traveled extensively through Japan and Asia in the 1940's and 50's. Since most of her possessions were in storage, I begged her to bring them out and redecorate her guest room as an office where she could be surrounded by her favorite possessions. The entire weekend we listened to calypso music and thankfully I downloaded many of her favorite CDs into my computer. My plan was to send her an ipod with all of her favorite music on it in order to help make her music collection more portable, since she was always on the go. She still had boxes and boxes of cassette tapes.

I silently admired a brass bell of a Voudun snake woman, most certainly acquired from her time in Benin in the 1970's. We both spent significant time in Benin and we shared a love of the history and art present in daily life there, although we never really discussed it. On the bookshelf in her room, I saw a small collection of brass weights from Ghana. It made me smile because these weights are my favorite part of every African art collection I have seen at museums. We had admired similar weights at the African Art Museum earlier that same day. Kay had been incensed that the museum had labeled a bracelet as, "Toureg, Mauritania" since there are not Tuaregs in Mauritania. She told the guard and promised to write a letter to the curator. 

I told her a story about how I had bought a tiny weight of a man on a horse in Togo and how I had truly loved it but unfortunately it never made it back to the hotel with me after I left the shop because I gave it to my friend to put in her pocket (I didn't have any) and it had somehow fallen out, most likely during a walk on the beach. I waited for days for her to tell me it was a joke and reveal the tiny treasure but it never happened. Kay smiled and brought out her little gold weight of a man on a horse, the same as the one I has lost. I instantly realized how special my friendship with Kay was and how I had never met anyone so much like myself. 

I left DC reluctantly and I remember telling my friends in Chicago how I had formed this amazing friendship with an incredible person who was nearly twice my age in years but my exact same age in spirit. Kay taught me that friendship has no age limit. I was so excited for her to return to Nouakchott in the Fall so I would have someone to go to concerts with, visit museums, and travel to cultural festivals. 

I read on FB from a mutual friend that Kay was in a coma in the hospital. I was still in NY and I called one of her best friends in DC. I remember walking down Greenwich village when she called me back to tell me that Kay had suffered from a brain aneurism while meeting with an architect to design her dream house in Vermont. Kay passed away the following day. I was not able to attend the service in Vermont because I had to return to Nouakchott to start my fourth year training teachers. 

Kay's greatest gift to me was to teach me how to live in the present. She showed me how to rely on local resources in countries and not try to live the same as I can in the United States. I knew this, and tried to do this before I met Kay, but she reinforced it and helped me to see how I can truly live by her example. Kay also showed me how to use my experience in a country to work for the greater good. She was a great mentor and role-model for me. I will never forget her independent spirit and infectiously positive outlook on life's quirks. We laughed so much together, it really doesn't seem right to cry so much in her absence. 

A lot of other hard things happened last year - my main work partners became unreliable and manipulative, my new director invited my colleagues to assist in trainings while telling me it was for "participants only," and my employer banned me from traveling within Mauritania without providing an explanation or cause for concern (last year was the safest year and tourism was at an all time high since I arrived in 2009). In addition, my father's poor health continued and he is still extremely sick today. To make matters worse, my other best friend in Nouakchott became unhappy with her life there and was away for months at a time. She emigrated to Europe before the end of the school year. 

Nonetheless, I persevered and had a pretty successful year with my projects and classes. I taught a marvelous group of first year teacher-trainees and strengthened my friendships with new work partners who proved to be much more reliable. It was a year of growth, change, and truth-seeking. I was able to finally understand the ways that the power dynamics in Mauritania operate. I witnessed how divisive and destructive it can be when people in high positions feel threatened (even if there is no basis). Still, working in Mauritania for a fourth year was so important to me and if I had left any earlier I would have missed out on so much. I wouldn't change the year for anything. I feel more capable in my ability to design and implement programs and the challenges actually forced me to be more creative and independent. 

I was able to leave Nouakchott on a positive note. I didn't feel up to having a big goodbye party but I did have a party at the end of the school year and I will have another party next year when I visit. There were no dramatic goodbyes. I learned that I don't have to say goodbye to my friends in Mauritania because I can find a way to keep coming back. That's another lesson that Kay taught me.